Whether it's chopsticks and soy sauce packets from the local Chinese joint or sporks and hot sauce packets from Taco Bell, just about everybody who's ever ordered delivery or takeout from a restaurant has a kitchen drawer filled with unused utensils and condiments.
Denver City Councilwoman Kendra Black wants to clean out those drawers and help clean up the city. "On the planet, we generate an incredible amount of plastic," she says. "Most of it is for single use, and very little of it is recycled. We need to quit using it. Recycling is fine, but it’s not a solution."
At a Denver City Council committee meeting today, February 11, Black will present a proposal that would require restaurants and delivery apps to ask customers whether they want to opt in to receive single-use items such as forks, straws and condiment packets — even napkins — along with their food.
"It just doesn’t seem like it would be that hard, and I think customers would appreciate it," she notes. "I always say, 'Don’t give me that stuff,' and then they give it to me anyway."
Other municipalities have taken actions similar to what Black is proposing. For example, San Francisco requires that restaurants and delivery apps provide single-use items only upon request, and bans plastic straws and stirrers completely.
Because of a Colorado law dating back to 1993, however, Colorado municipalities can't ban certain plastics. Although some attorneys argue that home-rule provisions give cities in this state the flexibility to still enact plastic bans, until now Denver has been scared off from enacting an outright prohibition of single-use plastics. State lawmakers tried and failed to repeal the law last year and plan to try again this year when the session restarts next week; in the meantime, Black is moving forward.
She wants to gauge the interest of her colleagues before crafting ordinance language that would establish a mandatory opt-in component. "I’m a fan of little baby steps, and I think this is a little baby step," Black says.
Black has already mentioned her idea to the Colorado Restaurant Association. Executive Director Sonia Riggs says that the Denver chapter of the organization hasn't taken a formal position on the proposal, and won't until further along in the process.
"According to our data, 78 percent of Denver restaurants are already asking guests if they want single-use cutlery and/or condiment packets included in their orders, and 55 percent of our Denver members support on-request legislation pertaining to single-use cutlery and condiments," Riggs says, adding, "There are some unintended consequences we'll need to consider, especially during the pandemic, when there's an emphasis on single-use options in restaurants for public-health reasons."
Black anticipates potential exceptions for whatever proposal she ultimately crafts. Customers who get soft drinks at a drive-thru will almost certainly expect a straw, she notes, and facilities providing patient care and service providers offering mobile meal delivery will probably require loopholes, too.
Some delivery app companies, such as UberEats, already have an opt-in feature integrated into their apps. In an email exchange, a lobbyist for UberEats told Black that "orders opted out of utensils since September 2019 have saved enough plastic to go from San Francisco to Nairobi three times, or more than enough to circle the Earth."
Black also reached out to DoorDash, another primary player in the third-party food-delivery business. "DoorDash is committed to helping facilitate sustainable choices through our platform and are actively working on solutions to reduce the use of single-use plastics through new products and partnerships," says Campbell Matthews, a DoorDash spokesperson. "We commend efforts to reduce the environmental impact of takeout and delivery orders and are eager to engage with all stakeholders on issues that impact our community."
While delivery-app businesses may be commending Black's opt-in proposal at this stage, they are not fans of another one of her moves: the ordinance capping third-party delivery fees at 15 percent. Originally approved by Denver City Council in October, that cap is now extended through mid-June.
In December 2019, Denver City Council also passed a "Bring Your Own Bag" measure championed by Black that placed a ten-cent fee on every single-use bag, whether plastic or paper, requested at grocery stores, gas stations and other retailers. The fee was set to take effect in July 2020, but Black and her council colleagues delayed the start of the program until July 2021 because of "challenging economic conditions and burdens on retailers, shoppers and city staff" during the pandemic, Black explains.
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